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District of Columbia v. Reid

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

December 18, 2014


Argued: September 26, 2014,

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAB-1238-14). (Hon. Robert D. Okun, Trial Judge).

Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General, with whom Irvin B. Nathan, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, and Stacy L. Anderson, Senior Assistant Attorney General, were on the brief, for appellant.

Allison M. Holt, with whom Jonathan L. Abram and Jennifer D. Brechbill were on the brief, for appellees.

Amber W. Harding filed a brief on behalf of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Bread for the City, Children's Law Center, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, District Alliance for Safe Housing, Fair Budget Coalition, Good Faith Communities, Homeless Children's Playtime Project, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, Miriam's Kitchen, National Alliance to End Homelessness, National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, National Center on Housing and Child Welfare, National Coalition for the Homeless, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, and Professors Robert D. Dinerstein, Deborah Epstein, Matthew Fraidin, Jeffrey Gutman, Ann Shalleck, and Jessica Steinberg.

Before BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY AND EASTERLY, Associate Judges, and EPSTEIN, Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.[*]


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Easterly, Associate Judge.

For almost as long as it has had a statutory obligation to provide shelter to the homeless, the District has been prohibited from placing homeless families in congregate shelters. This prohibition, dating back to 1988, is premised on an understanding that families have special needs that are best served by affording them apartment-style shelter--i.e., housing units with

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cooking facilities, bathroom facilities, and sleeping quarters--although with the recent amendment of the Homeless Services Reform Act (HSRA),[1] the District is now permitted to place families in private rooms if apartment-style shelter is unavailable.[2]

This case arises from an attempt by homeless families to hold the District to its undisputed legal obligations, after the Department of Human Services (DHS), in the winter of 2013-2014, began housing families in partitioned spaces within communal recreation centers. Concerned, among other things, about safety, privacy, and hygiene, a group of families sued on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated. They sought and obtained preliminary injunctive relief requiring the District to, inter alia, place them in apartment-style or private room shelter " on any night in which the actual or forecasted temperature, including the windchill factor, falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit." The District now appeals.

The District's primary argument is that the trial court should not have issued a preliminary injunction because the plaintiff families are unlikely to succeed on the merits. The District does not dispute that it has a statutory obligation to place homeless families in apartment-style or private room shelter. Instead, the District argues only that the plaintiff families have no right under D.C Code § 4-755.01 (a) (2012 Repl.) to sue the District to enforce the law.

The District acknowledges that, with the passage of the HSRA, the Council of the District of Columbia created an entitlement to, and thereby authorized a private right of action to enforce, " shelter in severe weather conditions." [3] But the District asserts that this entitlement to sue for severe weather shelter is not coextensive with the District's statutory obligation to provide apartment-style or a private room shelter for homeless families, and instead merely authorizes a private right of action to obtain something less than the statute requires the District to give. In this case, the District asserts that the statutory entitlement to sue for severe weather shelter allows families to sue for nothing more than four walls and a roof.

Reviewing the relevant provisions of the HSRA de novo, we disagree with the District's interpretation of the statute. Preliminarily, we disagree that the meaning of the entitlement-to-sue provision plainly precluded the homeless families' suit. Moreover, from our review of the statute as a whole and its legislative history, we conclude that the plaintiff families were empowered to sue in severe weather for the full measure of the statutory protections afforded them--protections which are an integral part of the Council's continuing effort to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of homeless families in the District. Accordingly, the plaintiff families have demonstrated the requisite likelihood of success on the merits.

We are unpersuaded by the District's additional attacks on the Superior Court's decision to issue a preliminary injunction in this case. We discern no error in the Superior Court's adherence to our four-factor test for the issuance of a preliminary injunction and refusal to consider the District's purported inability to comply with the sought-after injunction. We see no abuse of discretion in the trial court's admission of expert testimony or error in its assessment of the sufficiency of the evidence of irreparable harm. Thus, we affirm.

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I. Facts and Procedural History

Each year, the District of Columbia's Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) is required to develop the annual Winter Plan.[4] The Winter Plan " determines the projected shelter capacity that will be needed to meet the demand for shelter by individuals and families throughout the upcoming winter." [5] The annual " Winter Plan is based on past experience, current data, and the estimation of the ICH members." [6]

During the winter of 2011-2012, DHS placed approximately 560 families in shelter. During the following winter of 2012-2013, there was a twenty-percent drop in placements and DHS placed only 463 families in shelter. Based on the 2012-2013 data, some ICH members argued that the ICH should plan for even fewer than 463 family placements in the winter of 2013-2014. DHS and others opposed this reduction and advocated for a 10% increase, for a total of 509 projected placements. The number endorsed by DHS was incorporated into the ICH's approved Winter Plan for 2013-2014.

The ICH did not accurately anticipate the need for shelter for families during the winter of 2013-2014. By November 1, 2013, all of the District's 121 apartment-style shelters were occupied.[7] At that point, the District began placing families in hotel rooms. By January 30, 2014, DHS had made over 700 new placements into shelter or hotel rooms--far exceeding the ICH's projected number of new family placements for the entire winter season.

The District had informal arrangements with approximately six to eight hotels to accept family placements. But it had not negotiated any sort of written agreement for the District to rent " a certain number of rooms or to make any number of rooms available," and these hotels did not provide enough rooms to meet the District's needs. The District attempted to identify other family placements by having a staff member make daily telephone calls to hotels identified though " a lead" or a search " through the yellow pages or Google." When this strategy proved insufficient and demand for shelter did not abate, DHS opened the Benning Park Recreation Center and the King Greenleaf Recreation Center to accommodate additional homeless families.

At the recreation centers, homeless families with minor children slept on cots in " auditoriums or gyms." Initially, families were separated from strangers only by portable Red Cross partitions made of flimsy material and which had gaps at the corners, providing little privacy. The District later supplemented the Red Cross partitions with sturdier partitions that were taller and had fewer gaps.[8] But these new partitions still did not lock from

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the inside, and thus provided families with no security from the various people--including cleaning staff, shelter staff, and others seeking shelter--who walked about the communal sleeping area throughout the night. Moreover, the partitions did not shield families from the noise of other people talking, singing, and playing basketball, or from the smells of alcohol and cigarette and marijuana smoke, or from the overhead lights, which, although dimmed, were kept on all night for security reasons. And families had to venture outside the partitions to use communal restrooms (and in one instance, to get access to an electrical outlet for a child's nebulizer). The shared restrooms were unsanitary, in constant use, and had no bathing facilities available for families to use.

Several homeless families who were placed at the recreation centers during hypothermic weather conditions filed suit in February 2014, seeking a declaration that the District had violated the HSRA by placing them in congregate shelters, and an award of damages. On the same day they filed their complaint, the plaintiff families filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and a motion for a preliminary injunction preventing the District from placing families in " communal rooms, separated only by portable partitions without a door," and ordering the District to " [p]lace eligible homeless families in an apartment-style shelter, or, if none are available, in a private room." The Superior Court, Judge Tignor presiding, issued a TRO, reasoning that " the entitlement to shelter includes entitlement to the type of shelter prescribed in § 4-753.01 (d)," the apartment-style shelter or private room requirement for homeless families.[9]

Shortly thereafter, the Superior Court, Judge Okun presiding, held a hearing on the plaintiff families' motion for a preliminary injunction.[10] To make its ruling, the court employed the four-factor test for whether a preliminary injunction should issue: (1) whether there is a substantial likelihood that the movants will prevail on the merits; (2) whether they are in danger of suffering irreparable harm during the pendency of the action if the injunction is not granted; (3) whether the balance ...

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